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The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow
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7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 30 October 2010
Fans of nineteenth century fiction will doubtless have heard of Mrs Oliphant, not least for the sheer number of her publications, but her works have not been widely published for some time. Persephone here offers two novellas: "The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow" and "Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund" as an interesting sample of her work.
The two pieces are similar in that they have notional mysteries at their centre - though in truth you would have to be very slow on the uptake not to see the solutions coming. Also they are about women whose focus is on their children to the exclusion of their husbands - a point close to Mrs Oliphant's heart, as a woman who married a feckless husband and supported him and then after his early death, their children. Both also interestingly concern Victorian moral issues which would then ruin the families by sheer association, and about which no-one would give much second thought today (SPOILER ALERT: remarriage after a spouse's death and a midlife crisis affair). And if you are wondering: no, the second one is NOT a historical novella - the title is because of a coincidence of names and circumstances.
Aside from this period piece thrill, and some Mary Elizabeth Braddon-esque suspense writing, the pleasure in both is in the depiction of the strong female central characters (the others are very sketchily drawn), and the places, which really do spring into being off the page.
So, the verdict? Well, there are distinct similarities to Trollope in places - the phrasing and tone might occasionally be his. Similar also is her penchant for strong women in crisis mode. But more often I was reminded of Braddon - a sensationalism, a touch of vulgarity of which Trollope would never be guilty (well almost never!). Interesting? yes. Worth reading? Yes. Will I be making a comprehensive review of her works? No.
(However I will be off to check whether she was perhaps the inspriation for Lady Carbury in "The Way we Live Now"!!)
By the way, the consensus appears to be that Mrs Oliphant was a very clever witty woman indeed, who could probably have written better books. Merryn Williams, in the Afterword offers as an excuse that Austen, the Brontes and Eliot were childless, and Mrs Gaskell was affluent. Frankly I don't accept this as a full excuse. Dickens and Trollope both had to write to support their families and it didn't stop them writing good books or being involved in raising those families. However I suspect the point is that Mrs Oliphant was, like her heroines, a mother first (by a very long stretch) and a wife and author a distant second and third (in some order) - while their biographies suggest that Dickens and Trollope put things in a somewhat different order...
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